Mexican protests over petrol prices turn deadly, with widespread looting

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 8:46pm

The death toll in protests and looting fuelled by anger over petrol price hikes in Mexico rose to six on Friday when authorities confirmed that two men died in a confrontation between protesters and police in the central state of Hidalgo.

Keeping gas prices artificially low would mean taking money away from the poorest Mexicans
President Enrique Pena Nieto

There were four previous deaths in looting-related incidents and over the course of the week, at least 300 stores were looted and more 1,000 people were detained, officials said.

The protesters in Hidalgo were blocking a highway on Thursday and confronted police who were trying to keep order, when gunfire broke out. Two people also were found dead near looting in the eastern port city of Veracruz. Earlier, officials said a bystander was run over and killed by a driver fleeing police in another part of Veracruz state, and a police officer was killed trying to stop robberies at a petrol station in Mexico City.

In the northern city of Monterrey, officials said a crowd of protesters had smashed some of the stained glass windows of the Nuevo Leon state capital building. Several reporters were hurt, and 182 people were detained.

The country’s business chambers said the combination of highway, port and terminal blockades and looting this week forced many stores and businesses to close and threatened supplies of basic goods and fuel. The scenes of mass lootings came as parents were trying to buy presents for the January 6 Three Kings Day holiday. The looting and protests quieted somewhat Friday, but protesters continued to post themselves at highway toll booths with banners.

Mexicans were enraged by the 20 percent fuel price hike announced over the weekend as part of a government deregulation of the energy sector.

While acknowledging the anger, President Enrique Pena Nieto said Thursday he would forge ahead anyway with the deregulated price scheme, which would do away with fuel subsidies and allow petrol prices to be determined by prevailing international prices.

“I know that allowing gasoline to rise to its international price is a difficult change, but as president, my job is to precisely make difficult decisions now, in order to avoid worse consequences in the future,” Pena Nieto said in a televised address. “Keeping gas prices artificially low would mean taking money away from the poorest Mexicans, and giving it to those who have the most.”

Pena Nieto said the other big challenge for Mexico in 2017 was to “build a positive relationship with the new US administration,” something he said would be done with Mexico’s “unbreakable dignity”.

Veracruz Governor Miguel Angel Yunes Linares ventured out on Thursday and tried to persuade a crowd not to attack a grocery store that had already been looted a day earlier. About 300 people were detained in Veracruz.

In Mexico State, which borders Mexico City, 529 people had been detained as suspected looters. Four state police officers were fired and detained after they were caught on video taking some looted items and putting them in their patrol vehicles. The state government said the looting had quieted Thursday. But video of the Wednesday disturbances showed riot-like scenes of people streaming out of stores carrying flat-screen televisions and other items.

Officials claimed many of the lootings incidents were promoted through social media.

With blockades affecting everything from petrol distribution terminals, seaports and highways to shopping centres and petrol stations, the Communications and Transport Department announced it would cancel permits for any truckers who block roads.

The change boosted the average price for a litre of premium petrol to 17.79 pesos (US$0.90). That makes 4 litres, or about a gallon, equal to nearly as much as Mexico’s just raised minimum wage for a day’s work – 80 pesos. The National Association of Self-Service and Department Stores of Mexico has said in a statement that more than 79 stores had been looted and 170 were closed or blockaded in central Mexico, including the capital.